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April 21, 2016

At the best of times, this is a complicated topic to think, write or talk about. And currently, I am enmeshed in a peculiar situation with religion, albeit more intellectually stimulating than spiritually engaging.

I was born and raised in a fairly devout Catholic family, regular Sunday masses topped off with Sunday school, catechism classes, prayer at home, socialising with church folks, spending time with extended family on both sides dealing with excessive levels of praying and preaching and even having an aunt on each side who’s a nun. That said, mind that growing up Catholic in India still means having a healthy dose of pluralistic upbringing, given the sheer plethora of gods that abound in daily Indian life. My mother was always the more blindly faithful while my father maintained a healthy dose of skepticism of the institution of church while still believing in a greater force, i.e., God.

Then I left home for Singapore, and amazingly kept up with Sunday masses at church despite occasional bouts of laziness, in all honestly also because I found some company for these outings. In university, as part of my political leanings to the left of the centre, I started seriously questioning the virtue of the institution of the Church, especially in the context of exclusion of LGBTs, the various controversies relating to sexual abuse by clergy, etc, but, somewhat ironically, thanks to a close gay friend who’s Catholic, I kept up with church on Sundays. In many ways, it was the ‘community’ aspect that kept me hooked to my Christian/Catholic identity more than any faith in the religious institution itself.

Then I moved to London where I found myself very alone as a Catholic, living with non-Christians / non-religious housemates, in a Christian country which followed unfamiliar rituals (Anglican denomination), with Catholic churches located far and few in between in a large city. The community aspect of religion seemed well and truly over for me unless I could be bothered to make significant investments into finding ‘social capital’ within the church community which had zero intersections with the rest of my life. In any case, through my 20s, I found myself getting increasingly individualistic (which, I can now retrospectively connect to being less religious) and then outright atheistic with the increasing conservatism of the Church under the leadership of Pope Benedict. In the post-9/11 world, religion also proved itself to be an effective vehicle for radicalisation, further reason to reject it if one is so inclined already.

Through much of my 20s, my liberal and scientific self aspired towards rationalism, occasionally dabbling in bouts of empiricism, relativism and even nihilism. I remained wary of religion, religiosity, pious folks and their blind faith. Being atheist also conveniently comes with a not insignificant sense of superiority for having escaped the trap of  the ‘opium of the people‘. My analytical mindset and, perhaps, my career in business encouraged more of utilitarian view of ethics and morality in any case – organised religion seemed so inefficient in comparison.

But over time, the appeal of atheism waned, especially with the increasing cacophony from the ‘New Atheists‘, the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whose books and belief systems seemed to be just as dogmatic as institutionalised religion. As I travelled more around the world, I came to appreciate at least the legacy of religion – music, architecture, legends, stories, cultural heritage – even if not the religions themselves. I started considering myself less atheistic and more agnostic, or as I called it, spiritual but not religious. I cherry-picked some concepts / values to live by (for e.g., karma) and still vehemently rejected rituals.

Being in a relationship and then in a marriage with a Hindu Brahmin, it eventually became a matter of convenience to be irreligious so we never actively followed any rituals. When with our respective families, both of us silently suffer through whatever ceremonies we may be expected to attend with an obvious lack of enthusiasm. Both of us enjoy the shock value of being irreverent and cracking jokes on the caricatures of various religions. But I also continued to view myself culturally rooted in the Syrian Catholic community in Kerala, even if I shared NONE of their orthodoxy or conservatism.

I just finished reading a fantastic book – The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, an author whose talk I had the pleasure of attending during my exchange term at The Wharton School. The book is on moral psychology and why religion and politics divide people and although it looks at the topic with an American lens, the themes are universal. The multidisciplinary take on the topic uses a broad range of logical arguments and evidence to demonstrate how religion has several evolutionary purposes – a conclusion that squares up nicely with my rational mind and puts at rest my unease with completely rejecting religion and my need to be rational. This does not, by any measure, make me religious. It just also happens to be that we recently, as a family, went to mass at church (for various reasons) AND I have been invited by a friend to join her discussion group on Nichiren Buddhism a couple of times and I have gone and chanted. I do not know what this will lead do, and I cannot say I am at this point particularly moved spiritually by any of these recent experiences, but what an interesting journey – worthy of a post on this neglected blog, if nothing else!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Josekutty Kurian permalink
    April 22, 2016 4:39 pm

    Hi Sherene, nice seeing an article after a very long time. I wonder how you find time to pen these down. An interesting blog on religion; I tend to agree with most of your views. Sherene, let’s have more of it coming in future.

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